Anglo-Saxon extremists

The strange logic of the activists who insist the term “Anglo-Saxon” is racist


This article is taken from the June 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

As an undergraduate, I took a paper called “British political history, c.300-c.1100”. For ease of communication, we called it the “Anglo-Saxon paper” — which is all it ever was to me, aside from one week when I madly decided to write on the Picts. “What are you studying at the moment?”, an American student asked me once, as we ambled back from a seminar. “The Anglo-Saxon paper.” She gave me a disapproving look, told me she was more into “global history”, and mumbled something about “WASPs”. I wondered what St Boniface or St Dunstan might have made of the “P” in that acronym.

Arcane, insular, white little worlds “coming to terms with their past”

From this interaction I learned of an important cultural divide. Insofar as Americans encounter “Anglo-Saxons” at all, it is in this “WASP” formulation. When Britons encounter “Anglo-Saxon”, meanwhile, it is in Horrible Histories, Bernard Cornwell, or Michael Wood on the BBC. The Anglo-Saxons appear to us as a benign link in the chain of Our Island Story: they come after The Romans, coincide with The Vikings, and abruptly transform into The Normans at Hastings in 1066. Peopled with colourful characters, it is an exciting, murky part of the story.

Perhaps it was inevitable that the trans-Atlantic house of “Anglo-Saxon studies” cannot stand. Americans laugh at “it’s chewsday, innit”, and, in a similarly imperious vein, they judge us when we use language which, though anodyne to us, seems “problematic” to them. But such is their cultural power that our academic institutions of this discipline, such as the Anglo-Saxon, Norse & Celtic department at the University of Cambridge, face calls for a name-change. And so the international community of “Anglo-Saxonists” has been shaken to its core. 

Stories of this kind — of problems that were under our noses all along being “called out” when examined by fresh, woke eyes; of arcane, insular, white little worlds “coming to terms with their past” — are often presented as the product of a groundswell of grassroots activism. The Great Anglo-Saxon Debate of 2019 to the present, however, has a clear protagonist (or antagonist): Dr Mary Rambaran-Olm.

Dr Mary Rambaran-Olm has written many times that the term “Anglo-Saxon” is racist

A Canadian, Dr Rambaran-Olm garnered some attention last year for writing a review of a woke-but-not-woke-enough book called The Bright Ages. Back in 2017, she was elected vice president of the International Society of Anglo-Saxonists (ISAS); in her victory speech, she called herself a “woman of color and Anglo-Saxonist”. She has since fallen out of love with that latter term: in 2019 she resigned her position at ISAS on account of its apparently racist name. 

Cast out into the wilderness, she eventually won her hard-fought victory. “Anglo-Saxon”, ISAS said on resolving to change its name, “has sometimes been used outside the field to describe those holding repugnant and racist views, and has contributed to a lack of diversity among those working on early-medieval England and its intellectual and literary culture.” (Claims like these, you will notice, are seldom substantiated. I cannot find any evidence that the term “Anglo-Saxon” has any effect on ethnic-minority engagement in the field — whose finest practitioners have always included people, such as the German Jew Felix Liebermann, who were beyond the confines and in the crosshairs of racial Anglo-Saxonism.) 

From afar, Rambaran-Olm seems proud of her conquest of ISAS. Just as Hercules wore the hide of the Nemean lion, so her Twitter handle remains “@ISASaxonists”. First ISAS, then the world. Since 2019, Rambaran-Olm has written numerous articles propounding the same argument: that “Anglo-Saxon” is racist and we must dispense with the term altogether.

Well, it’s not just the racism. “Anglo-Saxon”, she claims, was not widely used by contemporaries, and is therefore “ahistorical”. “The people in early England or Englelonde”, she wrote in History Workshop, “did not call themselves Anglo-Saxons.” 

Now, I don’t see the problem with referring to people by a name which they didn’t use for themselves (we do this all the time for, say, Germans and Hungarians). But if I were the sort of person to get irked by such things, as apparently Rambaran-Olm does, “England” would trouble me far more than “Anglo-Saxon”. The word “England” dates from the early eleventh century, in use for a generation that could have witnessed Hastings. To speak of “the Anglo-Saxons” for the period between the fifth and eleventh centuries is less “ahistorical” than it is to speak of “England”.

Alfred the Great styled himself Angulsaxonum rex in his charters

The Robin to Rambaran-Olm’s Batman is one Dr Erik Wade. He also argues that the term “Anglo-Saxon” was scarcely used by the people themselves, and therefore that its usage constitutes poor scholarship. In their joint manifesto, published in the Smithsonian Magazine in 2021, the pair contend that “Anglo-Saxon” “didn’t even originate in England”. There’s that “England”, again, but also: so what if it didn’t originate here? When the Lombard Paul the Deacon wrote in the eighth century — our first reference to “Anglo-Saxon” — he had to distinguish these people from those “Old Saxons” still present on the continent. 

Drs Rambaran-Olm and Wade muddy the waters slightly when they say that “Latin writers used it to distinguish between the Germanic Saxons of mainland Europe and the English Saxons”: the “English Saxons” (we’re getting awfully close now!) were also “Germanic”. Likewise, whatever its continental origins, it is not as if the term “Anglo-Saxon” was never used by, well, the Anglo-Saxons. On Twitter, Dr Wade draws attention to its three surviving attestations in Old English. He frames this as a meagre number, but it’s enough to put to rest the idea that it was “only” an exonym. 

Dr Erik Wade says the term is scarcely used in Old English, but dismisses its appearance in Latin texts

Now, in older texts, “Anglo-Saxon” encompassed both the language and the people who spoke it. I improved my own grasp of that language, which we now call Old English, with the help of a wonderful book called Sweet’s Anglo-Saxon Reader (1876). There is good reason for drawing a distinction between “Anglo-Saxon” and “Old English”. Anglo-Saxon literary culture was bilingual: “Old English literature” is a subset of the corpus of “Anglo-Saxon literature”, which comprises both Latin and vernacular texts. 

This being so, Wade shifts the goalposts by focusing on attestations of the term “Anglo-Saxon” in Old English literature instead of Anglo-Saxon literature. For reasons which are scarcely explained, he dismisses the far more numerous appearances of the term in Anglo-Saxon Latin sources. Alfred the Great styled himself Angulsaxonum rex in his charters, and his grandson Athelstan rex Angulsexna. The “roots” of “Anglo-Saxon” are not “racist”, as though invented by modern white supremacists; instead they are to be found in Paul the Deacon and Alfred the Great. 

But even if the Anglo-Saxons had only seldom referred to themselves as “Anglo-Saxons”, they did refer to themselves as “Angles” and as “Saxons”. Hence modern-day East Anglia; and hence Sussex and Wessex and Essex and Middlesex. Even if there were no contemporary references to “Anglo-Saxon” then — although, it bears repeating, there were — it would still be fine for historians to speak of the “Angles and the Saxons”, and, when wishing to refer to the West Germanic population of early-medieval Britain as a whole, perhaps “Anglo-Saxon” for short. 

So “Anglo-Saxon” was not just an exonym. It was used by contemporaries. And, even if neither of these things were the case, one would still be justified to use it as a matter of convention. Such misdirection does not bode well for the meat of Wade’s and Rambaran-Olm’s arguments.  

He helped to turn the “Anglo-Saxons” into a byword for liberty

It is doubtless true that “Anglo-Saxon” abounds in the lexicon of nineteenth-century scientific racism, and it seems that these resonances reverberate more in North America than here. It is not true, however, that this is the only value-laden use of the term, or that “whiteness” is the only political meaning that its users have historically wished to conjure up. Again, such “misuses” of the term are by the bye, and historians should be permitted to use it in their correct way regardless. But although terms such as “Anglo-Saxons” have been invoked in support of this or that agenda, it is worth pointing out that this has not been the sole preserve of racists and bigots.

Though already long in currency among English historians, the term “Anglo-Saxon” was lodged firmly in the English consciousness by Sharon Turner during the Napoleonic Wars. Turner was no Jacobin, but he did not speak the language of racial essentialism; indeed, he helped to turn the “Anglo-Saxons” into a byword for liberty. To him, and many of his readers, “Anglo-Saxon” was a rallying point for all those who valued “a good constitution, temperate kingship, the witenagemot, and general principles of freedom”. Hence you find Anglo-Saxon England as a prelapsarian golden age in Whig rhetoric. But you also find it (unsurprisingly) in the radical tradition. 

To working men who imagined their class war as a revolt against the “Norman Yoke”, and to their twentieth-century Marxist admirers, “Anglo-Saxon” meant free, and signified proletarian solidarity. “Levellers and others,” wrote Christopher Hill, “claimed that all freeborn Englishmen had a birth-right, inherited from their Anglo-Saxon predecessors, of which it was wrong to deprive them.” After the French Revolution, wrote E.P. Thompson, “theorists of the popular societies dealt largely in Anglo-Saxon ‘tythings’, the witenagemot, and legends of Alfred’s reign”. 

Her and Wade’s arguments are the stuff not of academic history but political activism

Granted, this type of language (like the English radical tradition in general) has fallen by the wayside over the years. So what does “Anglo-Saxon” mean today? Aside from its obvious, historical meaning — and what the Rambaran-Olm and Wade call a “supremacist dog whistle”— it has two other uses worth pondering. One sometimes hears it used to signify “plain” or “unvarnished”, in implicit contrast to Norman foo-foo; this has much to do with its radical valency, casting the “Anglo-Saxons” as the wholesome, resilient underclass. Much more commonly, especially in countries like France, “Anglo-Saxon” simply means “Anglophone” or, more narrowly, “Anglo-American”. It is fundamentally incorrect, then, to suppose that the term has been swallowed up whole by the racists. 

Like plenty of terms which have a specialist definition, “Anglo-Saxon” has been deployed over the centuries to convey all manner of different things. Since none of this is inherent to it, it would be perverse for historians to cede ground altogether to any of these disparate groups. Indeed, Anglo-Saxonists should feel fortunate that the specialist sense is the dominant one, at least in British English. They are luckier in this respect than their colleagues who study the Goths or the Vandals.

That terms have different meanings and connotations in different times, places, and contexts is nothing new. Rambaran-Olm claims that “We can take corrective measures because language is always evolving”; with “Anglo-Saxon” we find a far better account of how language actually evolves than any imposition of “corrective measures”. 

Her and Wade’s arguments are the stuff not of academic history but political activism. And for all the veneer of scholarship, it seems to me that they know this and are proud of it. Rambaran-Olm’s article in History Workshop criticises those English Protestant Anglo-Saxonists in the sixteenth century who allowed political and theological concerns to interfere with their academic endeavours. Then, without any hint of irony, she states that “scholarly work, even historical studies, are never separate from current social and political realities”. 

As the sixteenth-century reformer sought to divine the germ of Protestantism in the church of Alfred the Great, so do Rambaran-Olm and Wade wish to serve contemporary pieties by excising “Anglo-Saxon” from our academic vocabulary and the historical record. They conclude their joint manifesto with a sort of call-to-arms-cum-pat-on-the-back: “We can arm ourselves against hate by wielding historical precision as a weapon.” Can we?

The moral of the story is this. Don’t let American idiosyncrasies disrupt sound history. Don’t let scholarship give way to activism. There are, in the end, many good reasons to keep using the term “Anglo-Saxon”. There are no good reasons not to.

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